Sheryl Sandberg Gives American Women a Performance Review

Before there were second-wave feminists, there were women's professional associations. Sandberg is looking to combine the two models to help women lead.

Mike Segar(Reuters)

A couple of years ago, I went to the opening of a photography exhibit in Washington's Penn Quarter organized by local news site DCist. It had been maintaining a popular Flickr feed of reader-submitted photos and in 2006 decided to launch an online contest, from which images would be curated for the show. At the time, I'd been dipping in and out of the local art world for around half a decade, first as a reporter and later as a silent observer of the scene, and so recognized many of its leading personages.

That night the room was packed. Beyond packed -- stuffed and sweltering. Yet I saw only one or two faces that I recognized. "Who are all these people?" I wondered. "Where did they come from? And why have I never met any of them before?"

What they were, it turned out, was a new community being born. Internet organizing, whether in the professional or the social arena, has a tremendous and by now well-documented capacity to create vibrant cultural networks where none existed before by knitting together people who have shared interests but no preexisting shared social geography. To be sure, online communities tend to arise around and overlay existing social networks (such as the DCist site, the central node around which a community swarmed that night, and whose 2013 show will hold two opening nights "limited to 500 per evening"). But organizing done through Facebook or Facebook-like efforts also has a tremendous capacity to call people up off the sidelines and create new leaders in the fresh space of a novel community as it emerges.

I've seen it over and over again in the past decade, from Howard Dean's Meetups to Barack Obama's Facebook-inspired social networking/community organizing/GOTV apparatus to reports on the Arab spring to even minor social events, like an Embassy of Sweden Innovation & Technology exhibit/cocktail party in 2008 that drew several thousand people more than could fit in the building, thanks to a Facebook notice that went viral.

It is in this dynamic that the true potential of the Lean In Circles proposed by Sheryl Sandberg can be found -- and why people should take them seriously as a potential force for change.

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Sandberg is a chief operating officer, a near-billionaire, a Harvard-Radcliffe College and Harvard Business School Graduate, one of the most powerful women in business, the fifth most powerful in the world, according to Forbes. But the most important data point on her resume, the one that makes most of this possible and which also must be kept in mind when reading her book, is that she is someone who works at Facebook. Who leads Facebook. Who helped invent the Facebook we know today. Hers is a Facebook feminism, and what she's doing in concert with her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead is taking some of the basic principles that undergird the massive growth of that company under her tenure as second-in-command -- engagement, reach, relevance, and social context -- and applying them to promoting her book and launching an ambitious professional development project for women, the Lean In foundation, funded with her own money.

The biggest wave of critiques against Sandberg so far have come from more traditional and intersectional feminists, and from mommy bloggers. I could rehash the pre-publication backlash to Sandberg, as well as the backlash against the backlash, but the fact of the matter is that all the huffing and puffing about why she's not organizing janitors or home health-care aides or stay at home moms is largely beside the point -- because that's not what her project is about. Sandberg is an unapologetic capitalist and senior manager who began her career in Washington, D.C. She says she's interested in seeing more women in leadership posts in corporate America and in the highest ranks of government. That means more women at the top, more women in positions of power, and more women who have the training and experience to lead within institutions actually getting a shot at doing -- or daring to do -- it. Hers is not a conversation for opt-outs, except to the extent that it might call them back to the field; Sandberg's conversation is for women who have to or want to stay in the game, and to thrive there.

For the first time in American history, there are now more college-educated women than men -- more than a million more. The Sandberg conversation is for the vast swath of college-educated women who work full-time and would like this thing that they spend the majority of their waking hours doing to be (more) rewarding, and maybe need a little bit of a kick in the pants to remember why they got into their chosen field in the first place, and also little encouragement after years being in the gender minority at the office. It is, perhaps, for women who feel as personally stalled as the feminist movement itself is, but who recall a time when they were more ambitious and all the pathways seemed clearer and they were more hopeful about their own lives. It is less for the tiny but vocal community of professional feminists than for post-feminist women who, like Sandberg, came to feminism late or woke up one morning and realized the equal world they'd been promised since they were kids and thought they were entering when they were young does not actually exist. And as much as there is in Lean In about marrying smart and really going for it professionally before you have kids, it's not even necessarily a book for young women, given how many busy professionals don't marry until their mid-30s or have kids until they are pushing 40, or even older. The goal of the Lean In Community, as outlined in documents obtained by the New York Times, is to help women find "personal fulfillment" and "professional success." And, though it doesn't say this, to help them feel less isolated.

Lean In is, in short, a call to engagement for people who are not already part of the public conversation about women and power, but who can be brought into a new conversation through reading her book and through the Lean In Community, which "will be tightly integrated with Facebook." That community's planning documents cite the Young Presidents Organization, microlending collectives, and study groups as models, and lay out plans for a quarterly budget for Facebook advertising, which is to say, using the deep data of Facebook to target messages as with a political campaign. "Our goal is not to create another proprietary women's organization," the document says, adding later: "Lean In will combine practical education and focused discussion to give women the tools they need to realize their goals."

That makes the engagement part of Sandberg's project more of a piece with professional development programs targeted towards encouraging and training women to take more active roles in public life -- such as the Op-Ed Project and EMILY's List and Running Start -- than with 1970s feminist consciousness raising groups derived from Chinese women's speak bitterness sessions, which even at their peak drew maybe 100,000 women (a miniscule fraction of America's female population). People have suggested Sandberg's Lean In curriculum is perhaps overly focused on the positive. But what else should one expect? This is Facebook feminism, an outgrowth of the "like" economy in which the characteristic communication option is a positive one. And I happen to like the collection of inspirational personal stories; Lord knows I'm deeply informed already about what the systemic and structural problems are. It's cool to hear about how other people have handled inflection points in their professional lives.

Think of it this way: Just because no nation has achieved anything near gender parity in national elective offices without national or political party quotas doesn't mean that groups like EMILY's List and the WISH List are useless in the United States. Women have made huge strides in public office over the past 20 years since private-sector efforts to train and encourage and fund individual women have come on the scene, more than quadrupling their numbers in the U.S. Congress. Are we there yet? No. But no one can propose a path forward that does not involve calling more women off the sidelines into public service -- the whole point of She Should Run, for example, is to get qualified women who might not think of themselves as political leaders to consider contending for office, where all the research shows they are just as likely to win as men. As well, no one will be able to solve the byline gap on the Op-Ed page unless there are also more individual women willing to own their expertise and pitch pieces, which report after report confirms women are more hesitant to do that men and do less often.

In her book, Sheryl Sandberg, manager, has effectively looked around and given American working women a performance review. And, like any good manager, she's made a pep talk about all the cool things you can do in the future a part of that. She's not shy about telling women what they can do better at the same time that she's sympathetic to their challenges. But she's also not afraid to lay out the opportunities that women already do have that they are leaving on the table and say, wait a minute, what about this, and this, and this? Some women have complained that Sandberg's call to lean in is making them feel guilty for not doing even more when they are already trying as hard as they can. But that griping feels a little bit like humble-bragging -- you know, of the "my greatest weakness is I work too hard" variety.

A book doesn't have to speak to everyone to launch a cultural moment. It just has to inspire enough women to make change and provoke a real national conversation. And, let's be real, even when feminism was a mass movement in the 1970s, the vast majority of American women took no part in its organized leadership or formal activities. There's a lot of room between opting out and maxing out; there are women who know they could be doing more if they felt more encouraged, and I suspect they will happily test out the Lean In Circles.

"Leaning in means pushing through the challenges and going down a path with an uncertain outcome...." the document says in a section soliciting stories. "Leaning back means choosing to stay in a known or comfortable situation."

That's how movements get going. One person or group of people starts one thing and other people judge it inadequate and start their own thing and before you know it there's a whole set of things no one expected happening. But there has to be a catalyst. Someone has to get the ball rolling and to become the first public target -- because make no mistake, any one who advocates for and tries to lead on fundamental social change is signing up for years of being mocked or criticized or even hated, both by potential allies and by opponents. (Respect for movement leaders comes only after they win, if then -- that's something they don't teach in the history books.)

But the important part here is that Sandberg herself is leaning in with this book and with her project. She's already provoked a huge conversation about women and work and likability and ambition and whether we are really all personally flourishing or not, and the book has only been available for sale for a few days. I hope the conversation keeps going, and I'm looking forward to one day having that same feeling I had at that DCist show, walking into another room and having to ask myself, "Who are all these people?", thanks to a new social network that's sprung into being.